Books about Memphis’s famed Beale Street are nothing new. A search of Amazon.com brings up 1,547 hits.
The latest entry has an unusual take on the subject, though. In “Beale Street Dynasty,” author Preston Lauterbach traces the history of the area through the story of Robert Church and his descendants. Church was a slave owned by his white father. Church worked the riverboats of the Mississippi, survived a harrowing steamboat explosion and ended up in Memphis.
Memphis was a wide-open town in those days, and Church went into prostitution, gambling and bars.
Church was by no means alone in these endeavors, but he and his descendants managed to survive decades of change, numerous business rivals, and several attempts by different administrations to “clean up” Beale Street and environs.
Church’s reign went from the Reconstruction era through the changing racial landscape of the early 20th century, as he kept and expanded his illicit empire.
Lauterback tells the story with copious research and some fine writing. Here is how he describes Memphis Mayor John Park: “With his stringy mop of white hair, Park resembled either a frontiersman or a lightning-struck prophet, and his public speaking bore the charm and subtlety of either.”
Following a race riot in 1866, Church began to build his fortune on prostitution and gambling.
Lauterbach populates the book with numerous characters from Memphis and Beale Street – some famous, such as the composer W.C Handy and piano man Jelly Roll Morton – and some not so famous but quite entertaining, such as Fatty Grimes. Fatty was a gambler and womanizer who was ambushed early one morning and shot, perhaps as many as 10 times.
“People … saw Fatty high-speed staggering down the sidewalk … They’d shot him at such close range and so many times that his coat caught fire, and flames rose from his back like wingers as fell facedown at the Monarch front door.”
Despite the violence that sometimes erupted, the Beale Street of the late 19th century was attractive to a certain type of individual regardless of race.
“(Ed) McKeever could have gone anywhere, done anything, had any opportunity opened to him in the halls of power or justice. That a white man had chosen Beale Street … attests to the allure, the magic, and fun of Beale Street.”
But there was another side to Church. He was reform-minded and helped Ida B. Wells in her militant journalistic efforts on behalf of civil and political rights.
And he was also political. Sometimes in conjunction with the white power establishment and sometimes in opposition, Church and his son built one of the most powerful African-American political machines in the country.
“Ward five included the black saloons in the heart of Beale,” Lauterbach writes. “The presence of the black vote in Memphis had as much to do with the city’s unusual character and remarkable history as did its distinguished citizens. From the end of the Civil War on through the twentieth century, while virtually every other city in the South took legal and extralegal measures to keep Negroes from the polls, the black Memphis vote remained in play. Even when exploited, the black vote benefited citizens of color, as a generation of black creativity began, however indirectly, through the auspices of Negro divekeepers.”
Telling a city’s history through its darker side is probably not something the chamber of commerce would undertake. But Beale Street Dynasty helps us see Memphis in a different light, and in so doing it also gives us a profile of a fascinating man:
“This is the story of how a slave became an emperor and of the dynasty Robert Church created. Though he founded it on debauchery he ran his kingdom with sensitivity and virtue.”
Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis
W.W. Norton & Company, 320 pages